Interview with Ms. Mary Nikezić – Honoring Women Changemakers among the Montenegrin Diaspora

Introducing IOM International Women's Day campaign: "Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress for Gender Equality and Safe Migration."

On this special occasion, we're thrilled to spotlight three remarkable women: Tamara Srzentić, Andrijana Paljušević, and Mary Nikezić. Originating from Montenegro, these impressive women are not just leaders in their respective fields, but they're also catalysts for change and champions of gender equality. Through their work, they inspire our society and demonstrate the power of determination, resilience, and innovation. As we celebrate their achievements, let's join hands in supporting women change makers among the diaspora, empowering women, and fostering a more inclusive world for all.

Dive deeper into Mary's inspiring story and insights in her full interview. 



  1.  Your journey from Loyola University to becoming a successful attorney specializing in complex commercial litigation is truly impressive. How do you believe your academic and professional experiences have shaped your advocacy for gender equality within the legal profession, and what steps do you think are essential for creating more inclusive environments for women in law?

My academic and professional journey has been both challenging and enlightening.  My commitment to gender equality and social justice began early in my high school years.  Recognizing the stark inequalities and challenges faced by many, I eagerly involved myself in organizations dedicated to social causes, from local organizations that assist underprivileged and immigrant communities, to global organizations like Rotary International. This early engagement laid the groundwork for my career path as I developed a deep-seated passion for advocacy and awareness of the systemic barriers that need dismantling.

My subsequent exposure to the multifaceted world of commercial litigation has further shaped my perspective on gender equality. I’ve observed firsthand the unique challenges women face in the legal field, from implicit biases to representation disparities. For instance, in the legal profession, where assertiveness and confidence are paramount, women often face a precarious balance. If they exhibit the qualities of their male mentors, they risk being labeled as “too aggressive”, a perception rarely directed at their male counterparts.  If they are not assertive enough, then they often are seen as lacking confidence and ineffective. This double standard not only unfairly criticizes women for adopting a litigation style deemed necessary and effective but also can impede their professional advancement. I’ve also personally observed and experienced that female lawyers are more likely to be interrupted when speaking in meetings and courtroom settings, are often paid less than equally qualified male attorneys, are promoted less than their male counterparts, and treated differently when they have children because of the perception that they are less dedicated to cases. These are just some examples of the ingrained biases and gender inequality in the legal profession.

To that end, my advocacy efforts are twofold: promoting awareness and effecting change. By participating in organizations geared toward women’s equality and empowerment and mentoring young female lawyers, I strive to highlight and address the gender-specific hurdles in our field. I routinely work with young female lawyers to assist them in navigating the issues they face early in their career.  By working together, I firmly believe that we can create a new paradigm and more inclusive environment for future female lawyers.

  1. Given your experience practicing law in both Florida and Illinois, as well as your involvement in federal court proceedings, what do you see as the most pressing legal issues affecting migrant women's rights and safety in the United States today, and what strategies can be employed to address these challenges effectively?

Zarco, Einhorn Salkowski, P.A., is a nationally recognized law firm, with clients throughout the United States.  As a partner of the firm, I routinely litigate cases in many jurisdictions – not just Illinois and Florida, through pro hac vice admission. As such, I have had exposure to the laws and social dynamics across the country which, in turn, has deepened my understanding of the unique legal challenges women face – including migrant women – especially in the context of rights and safety.

One of the most pressing issues I see for migrant women is the lack of legal protection and awareness, particularly for those migrant women that are undocumented or in temporary visa situations. This vulnerability often leads to exploitation, including workplace abuses.  I routinely handle employment law matters and while the laws in the United States are highly protective of employees, those protections are only effective if workers are aware of their rights and have equal access to legal representation.  Unfortunately, migrant women face significant barriers in accessing legal and social services, compounded by language barriers and a lack of awareness about their rights.  This creates an environment where, irrespective of the strong protections afforded to workers and women under the law, migrant women are far less likely to invoke their rights and have their voices heard.  Migrant women also face significant societal stigmas, where they are often expected to be quiet and not “make trouble.” This social conditioning discourages them from invoking their rights, further exacerbating their plight, especially when coupled with the existing barriers to education, awareness, and legal representation.

Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach. First, I believe that increasing legal aid and advocacy specifically tailored for migrant women is crucial, including providing accessible information about their rights and ensuring language assistance in legal proceedings. Efforts to counter the social stigma and empower migrant women to speak up and assert their rights are also essential. Policy reform is also needed to offer greater protection, particularly in areas like workplace rights and domestic violence, which takes into consideration specific challenges faced by migrant women and how they are disproportionately impacted.  

I think collaborative work between policymakers, educational institutional, and grassroots organizations that understand migrant community dynamics can inform more empathetic and effective policies. Comprehensive immigration reform should consider the unique challenges faced by women, including provisions for reporting abuses without fear of deportation, access to healthcare, and legal representation. Lastly, increasing representation of migrant women in policymaking can ensure their voices are heard and their specific needs are addressed.

  1. As someone with significant expertise in litigation, representing clients from various industries, including hospitality and construction, what insights can you share about the challenges migrant women might face within these sectors, and how can legal frameworks be improved to ensure their rights and safety are protected?

I have had experience in the hospitality and construction sectors from both a business and legal perspective.  I have represented a large number of clients in these sectors and have also been a business owner in the hotel, restaurant, and the real estate development industries.  From my experience, the major challenges that migrant women face in these industries is workplace exploitation and gender-based discrimination. Migrant women are frequently employed in lower-paid, unstable positions, making them vulnerable to exploitation such as wage theft, lower pay, and excessive work hours.  This is particularly true in the hospitality and construction sectors, both of which are dominated by small businesses which typically have fewer resources, less structured management, and lack comprehensive human resource policies.  There may be also more pressure to comply with unfair demands for migrant women given the fear of job loss, especially in the current economic conditions and tend of employee layoffs through the US.  Aside from lower pay, migrant women employed in these industries, particularly those undocumented, frequently lack access to employer-provided health insurance and are ineligible for government-funded programs like Medicaid.  Given the extremely high cost of healthcare in the U.S., the lack of insurance means delays in seeking medication attention leading to worsened health outcomes.

Additionally, the prevalence of sexual harassment in these environments poses a significant risk, compounded by the fear of retaliation or job loss if they speak out. The transient nature of the industry and the informal and less structed nature of many hospitality workplaces, makes it difficult to enforce standard labor protections and policies.  For instance, sexual harassment issues are more prevalent in these less-formal industries, as traditional reporting mechanisms and HR structures may be underdeveloped or absent entirely.  Migrant women often lack the resources or support networks to seek help which makes them even more vulnerable to workplace abuses. These challenges can be overcome through legal reforms, strengthening the enforcement of our existing labor laws, expanding awareness among migrant workers of their legal rights, and increasing access to legal representation. 


  1. What advice would you offer to young women, especially those from Montenegro or other migrant backgrounds, who aspire to pursue careers in law or other male-dominated fields, and how can they navigate and overcome potential barriers they may encounter along the way?

One of my biggest inspirations and role models has been Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously said “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”  For many years, this quote has been hanging in my office as well as my home and reminds me never to stop dreaming. 

Coming from a traditional Montenegrin upbringing, I realized at a young age that there was a stark difference in the societal expectations of women, who were often circumscribed to a role of a homemaker and mothers, roles that, while noble and vital, have often limited women’s opportunities and choicesTraditionally, these roles were not just expected but seen as the epitome of a woman's purpose.  I always had a desire to redefine these expectations. Even as a young girl, I found myself at family gatherings gravitating to the rooms where the men were discussing business and politics in which the women were largely absent. I wanted to be a part of the discussion – I wanted a seat at the table.  I recall that when I was 17 years old and selected as one of thirty young women to participate in the Eleanor Roosevelt leadership conference, the essay I submitted began with “women should be allowed to use their brains for more than selecting the best laundry detergent.” While the ability to nurture, educate, and maintain the family unit is a profound contribution to society, it's important to balance respect and appreciation for traditional roles with the encouragement of broader opportunities for women.  Growing up, I felt that society did not expect women to have the choice of whether to be in a more traditional role or to pursue a career outside the home.

Fortunately, my parents always supported my goals, believed in me, and my ability to succeed at a time when women from our community were far less likely to pursue higher education and demanding professional careers outside the home. My father, in particular, was a strong believer in education.  He always told me that the one thing that can never be taken away from me is my knowledge, and that I could achieve anything in life if I was truly prepared to work harder than anyone else.  My father’s own plight – from being orphaned at the age of nine to becoming a successful businessman in foreign land without anyone to pave the way for him – has and continues to motivate me to reach beyond my own perceived limitations.  I knew that if he could succeed against those odds, I had no excuse.  

To those of you aspiring to break into law or other male-dominated fields, I offer this advice: Hold firmly to your dreams and believe in yourself.  Your aspirations and talents are valid, and they deserve to be pursued with vigor and passion.  Don’t be afraid to fail as failure is essential to growth.  Have the courage to get back up and keep fighting for your dreams as the world has infinite opportunities if you free yourself of the shackles of fear.  My biggest professional growth came after experiencing my biggest setbacks, and I know I will continue to have those setbacks as I reach new heights.  It took a while for me to realize that it is ok for things to not always go as we planned, despite our best efforts.  It just means we need to refine our approach, learn from our mistakes, and continue to work hard until you get there.  Resilience is key in navigating male-dominated environments. Cultivate this trait by embracing challenges as learning opportunities. Seek out mentors and role models – women who have paved the way in these fields can offer invaluable guidance and inspiration. Additionally, networking is crucial. Connect with peers and professionals in your field through internships, workshops, and professional organizations. These connections can provide support, advice, and opportunities.

I encourage the young Montenegrin women to always remember that their cultural background is an asset, not a barrier.  Embrace your heritage and use it to offer fresh viewpoints.  If language or cultural differences pose challenges, view them as opportunities for growth. Equally so, being a woman is not just a facet of your identity; it’s an incredible asset. Your femininity brings a unique blend of perspectives, strengths, and problem-solving skills that are essential in these male dominated industries. Embracing your femininity means recognizing and leveraging these innate strengths. It means understanding that the qualities traditionally seen as “feminine” – empathy, intuition, resilience, and the capacity for collaborative and inclusive leadership – are powerful tools in any professional arsenal. In the world of law, where negotiation, understanding different perspectives, and forging connections are crucial, these skills can set you apart and drive success.

  1. Given your experiences and accomplishments, in your opinion, what are some effective ways individuals, communities, governments and diaspora can invest in women to accelerate progress towards gender equality and ensure safer migration experiences?

Investment in education, grassroot movements, policy reform, and mentorship programs are crucial in accelerating women’s equality and empowerment.



For more information, please contact Edina Osmanović, tel: +382 68 865 005, email:

SDG 5 - Gender Equality
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals